I visited the New Museum in New York for the first time a few weeks ago, and had a really good experience overall. (Though that spaceship thing was kind of a let down.) It’s kind of a strange building, an assortment of rooms piled on top of each other in a jumbled tower, with each floor serving as a single exhibition space. The main exhibit on view was devoted to Polish sculptor Paweł Althamer, spanning four floors and revealing the artist’s aesthetic innovation as well as his tendency to collaborate with people outside the art world establishment. I started at the top and worked my way down, and at first found his different practices unconnected and a little confusing, but gradually these seemingly disparate elements came together in exciting ways.
The first piece, Draftsmen’s Congress, is a full-gallery installation, a notable exercise in interactivity and art-as-play. Originally presented at the Berlin Biennial in 2012, the work began as a blank white room, which over the course of the exhibition became inundated with additions in paint and crayon, splattered along every surface, including the floor. Althamer also ran sculptural workshops to make new works for the space, which over time were also painted by visitors. I was immediately taken with the concept of this piece- at first sight I was just excited to be in such a colorful, playful room, and when I realized I could add my own mark, I was overjoyed. While my companion drew adorable birdies, I wrote a few key phrases. As a whole the work is fun and liberating, allowing visitors to freely express themselves, to collaborate, and to bask in the beauty of a space completely transformed by art. The room itself is a memorial to the people who visited during the exhibition’s run, marked by people of all ages and backgrounds, recording their names or dates or thoughts or drawings. It was also a very positive space, with lots of inspirational messages written throughout. My words weren’t quite so uplifting, but still pretty important to share, I think.
The next floor collected together a number of Althamer’s sculpture, proving a rather jarring shift from the previous installation. They are primarily figurative, life-size, made of biological material such as hemp, hair, hay, animal intestines, and wood. Some are clothed, some are nude, some are metal, some are abstracted. They are all to some extent unnerving, rendering the viewer uncomfortable through their use of animal and human matter, their confrontational gazes, and, often, the disenfranchised people they represent. Some of them are the result of collaborative projects, though (Maika Pollack notes) that is not always made clear in their presentation at the museum. The dominant piece is Matea, a cast-aluminum scene that came from a 2006 action performed in tandem with Althamer’s wife, Matejka. The couple set up a traditional sculptor’s studio in Greece, with each modeling for the other. Althamer cast this piece as a way to immortalize their collaboration, and the work is as much hers as it is his. A striking work in the corner called Black Market involved African immigrants whom Althamer had met in Warsaw and invited to carve small sculptures out of ebony wood. They themselves were not skilled as artisans, and through their participation Althamer hoped to break down barriers between artist and non-artist, while also referencing racial barriers in the art world and the historical notion of Primitivism. But, their names are not included in the museum wall text- they are simply presented as generalized African immigrants. Not really making any strides for black artists here. Further stressing the collaborative (but uncredited) aspects of his practice, music played by street musicians positioned in the lobby was pumped into the gallery, though I never knew the name of the person playing. By the time I reached the lobby, I forgot to check.
Easily my favorite work was Mezalia, a stop-motion short film and its accompanying set, produced in collaboration with artist Paulina Antoniewicz and filmmaker Jacek Taszakowski. Stop-motion animation is one of my favorite art forms and it’s always fascinating to see the behind-the-scenes elements. The set is a miniature beach, with scattered trees and buildings, and a dock stretching over a mirrored surface. Two boys sit listlessly near the water with their new toy sailboat. Across from this set, a smaller structure is made up as a derelict, unfurnished apartment with a little Althamer stand-in peering sadly out the window at the boys. The film itself was sort of hidden on the other side of the gallery in the middle of a stairway, but I was happy to find it. Its style reminded of The Adventures of Mark Twain, both visually and thematically, and the use of Althamer’s lonely figure staring into the past as a framing device laces the entire film with underlying melancholy.
The final floor featured my other favorite work, The Venetians. Made for the 2013 Venice Bienniale, it is a full-gallery installation of grey sculpture with faces cast from people Althamer met on the streets of Venice. This random sampling is meant to portray the diversity of Venice while highlighting those on the fringes, a common trope in his work since his earlier projects neighbors in his hometown of Brodno, an impoverished suburb of Warsaw. The works combine realistic facial features with abstracted bodies, as slick plastic is draped and stretched over steel armatures to form limbs and torsos. Life-size, they are placed throughout the gallery in different poses, so that viewers can walk among them- as on a city street, presumably. The effect is beautiful and uncanny and kind of funny all at once. In four corners of the space an earlier project is worked into The Venetians, a video series from 2003 called So-Called Waves and other Phenomena of the Mind which includes footage of the artist taking different drugs and undergoing hypnosis. I’ll admit I didn’t really pay much attention to these pieces, mostly because I was so captivated by the sculpture. And one of them shows Althamer watching his daughter’s birth and that kind of thing grosses me out so I walked away.
Paweł Althamer: The Venetians, 2013. Installation view. via The New York Times
Paweł Althamer: The Venetians, 2013 (detail). via The New York Times
This was my first exposure to Althamer, and it was a lot to process. I enjoyed the exhibit overall, taken with his bizarre sculptural style and interactive components of works like The Draftsmen’s Congress. Since my visit I’ve thought and read more about his projects, his collaborations, and how he is received and exhibited. Generally it seems he uses his art world cachet to promote his collaborative projects, and works diligently to bring his own art knowledge to communities who might not have access to art classes. The curators do not always mention or focus on the collaborators in Althamer’s work, sparking questions of authorship, but I would see that as more of a problem with the New Museum’s presentation than Althamer’s actual artistic practice.by